With Stanford looming on the schedule next week and California possessing a powerful passing attack, Saturday’s matchup between USC and the Golden Bears seemed like it might be a potential “trap game” for the Trojans. But an explosive first half that featured two punt returns for touchdowns from sophomore wideout Nelson Agholor quickly dispelled that notion, as USC (7-3, 4-2) rolled to a 62-28 victory over the hapless Bears (1-9, 0-7).
Before USC’s offense could get on the field, Agholor set the tone for the Trojans by returning a punt 75 yards for a touchdown, USC’s first non-blocked punt return touchdown since 2010.
“I got under it with some space and got some blocks down the field,” Agholor said. “That’s how you return, when a lot of guys put in a lot of effort so one guy can run.”
He added another in the second quarter to tie a conference record, becoming the first USC player to accomplish the feat since Mike Garrett did against Cal in 1965. Redshirt junior safety Josh Shaw also returned a blocked punt for six points to give USC a NCAA record-tying three touchdowns off punt returns.
When the offense did get to match up against Cal’s defense, the latter unit showed just how much they miss former defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who now holds the same title for USC.
The Trojans drove 79 yards in 15 plays before reaching paydirt on a slip screen pass from redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler to senior tailback Silas Redd, who rumbled 12 yards into the end zone to make their lead 14-0.
That was just the beginning of a nearly flawless game for the Trojans that saw them brush off several of the poor habits that had hampered them throughout the season.
USC’s offense hadn’t exactly came into the game having converted just 30.3 percent of its third-down conversions – tied for 114th in the FBS. But the Trojans greatly outperformed that mark against the Bears, succeeding on their first four attempts and finishing 5 for 9.
Overall, a unit that hadn’t been explosive most of the season seemed to find an extra gear in NorCal. The Trojans averaged 9.8 yards per play and had eight plays that gained more than 20 yards.
“That’s pretty good right there,” Graf said, grinning after hearing the team’s offensive statistics. “You feel really good, and you feel as an offensive line that you really did your job.”
Kessler was 14 of 17 for 170 yards and two touchdowns, with completions to eight different receivers. Redshirt sophomore Javorius “Buck” Allen had 135 rushing yards and two touchdowns on just six carries, and tacked on a 57-yard touchdown reception to continue his sudden emergence. Allen now leads the team in rushing touchdowns (7).
“I want to give credit to the line and the fullbacks because without them I wouldn’t even be in [this position],” Allen said. “We have a great offense and a great game plan and we executed.”
Agholor had 215 all-purpose yards, all of which came in the first half. Senior receiver De’Von Flournoy led USC in receiving yards (63) on three receptions.
Cal freshman quarterback Jared Goff performed admirably in defeat while carrying the Bears’ offense, completing 34 of 48 attempts for 255 yards and three touchdowns. The Bears were only outgained 499-483 offensively by the Trojans, but shoddy special teams play and a porous defense doomed them to their seventh Pac-12 loss and 14th consecutive defeat to FBS competition.
“I think they got a lot of talent on that offense,” redshirt senior linebacker Devon Kennard said. “They can get over the top on you and make plays in space. We just wanted to contain them all day and make them uncomfortable pass-rush wise.”
The only bad news of the day for USC came when Redd was sidelined for the remainder of the game with a minor right knee injury after his touchdown run. But Allen stepped right into his place and sparked the Trojans to another score on his first series in the backfield.
With a scamper reminiscent of his 52-yard score against Oregon State last week, Allen took an outside handoff down the right sideline and showed off a vicious cutback move before crossing the goal line to extend USC’s lead to 21 with just over a minute left in the first quarter.
After Cal responded with two touchdowns to cut the deficit to seven points, Allen caught another slip screen pass from Kessler on 2nd and 18 and ran 57 yards into the end zone to add to his impressive highlight reel.
The Bears’ ensuing possession resulted in a three-and-out, and Cole Leininger’s punt was blocked by sophomore fullback Soma Vainuku. The ball spun in the air before landing in the arms of junior cornerback Josh Shaw, who returned it 14 yards for a touchdown to make the score 35-14.
Leininger got off the punt on his next attempt following another stalled Bears drive, but Agholor returned it 93 yards for his second touchdown to make the score 41-14 and tie USC’s season-high point total with 3:47 still left in the first half.
“You return one and everyone wants to return another,” Agholor said. “Those guys blocked well and we were able to make the play.”
The onslaught continued in the second half with a 79-yard dash from Allen, marking his second consecutive game with three touchdowns. Kessler and Allen were benched for the rest of the game to protect the star players from injury – but the second-stringers simply picked up where the starters left off.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Max Wittek’s first pass attempt of the game resulted in a 26-yard completion to redshirt junior tight end Xavier Grimble. Freshman tailback Ty Isaac gained 18 yards on his first rushing attempt of the game, then punched it into the end zone on the next play for his first career touchdown and a 55-14 USC lead.
From there, the Trojans cruised to victory and gave hope to their fans that they might just have a chance to pull off an upset against Pac-12 frontrunner Stanford next Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“It shows how close these guys are getting as a family and focusing on the task at hand,” Orgeron said. “Because we all know what’s coming up next week.”